Remember that popular kid in high school? The one with that sixth sense ability of knowing exactly what to do and say to make everyone idolize them? Their life seemed perfect, free from social rejection and full of admiration. If only we could be just like them. For many of us the desire to be popular peaks in middle school and high school when emphasis is placed on conforming to fit into the in-crowd. Of late, there has been a growth in a culture hungry for popularity that goes beyond school lunchrooms. From obsession over likes and views to even crowd sizes, the digital age has kicked the quest for popularity into high-gear. In this anxiety-provoking quest, something as simple as a thumbsup or heart sign now has the ability to shape our opinions, decide our status, and affect our mental health. We encourage children to embrace their individuality, yet worry when their uniqueness costs them acceptance from peers. In an attention-seeking world where even the President of the United States worries about his popularity, how do we teach children to embrace unpopularity?
As a long-time member of the unpopular club, I’ve experienced my fair share of ridicule for being an outlier. In eighth grade when every girl in my class wore UGG boots, I wore sneakers. Being unpopular made me a target for bullying, but it also unfairly took away opportunities I had worked hard for.
“You can’t be a president/mentor/leader if you’re not popular.” Though said in different ways, this statement is something I along with many other students across the country get told everyday. The sedulous girl who sits alone by the corner dreaming of running for class president is discouraged when people tell her that she doesn’t stand a chance against the class clown, who, despite his lack of substance managed to gain popularity through his audacious tweets about teachers and classmates. The dividing line between these two students contrasting popularities is their ‘social qualifications’. Although the class clown may have no idea about running student government, he is seen as powerful because he’s invited to all the parties, he has much more friends, he has never been socially rejected. We equate popularity with empathy and vote for the class clown thinking that he represents all of us. We forget that ‘all of us’ don’t necessarily get invited to all the parties and have a bunch of friends. Most importantly, we forget that ‘none of us’ are immune to rejection.
To gain popularity you need to be likeable — which in today’s world requires steering clear of every avenue that could cause public rejection. It’s the reason why some celebrities choose to stay silent on important issues instead of using their influence to inspire change. Rejection is tough and often times we’re willing to sacrifice our own individuality for the sake of approval from others. To stay likeable, some us will play it safe and keep our unpopular opinions to ourselves. Only voicing opinions that the majority support.
If you’re a frequent social media user you’ve likely experienced those anxious moments in time that come after hitting the post button. It’s been three whole minutes and not a single like has come in, do you frantically refresh the page every minute or do you hide under a blanket catastrophizing that everybody hates you?
Part of being human is craving positive feedback. The instant gratification that comes from getting a ‘like’ notification feeds our ego but it’s absence drowns us in self-doubt. Suddenly, that well-thought-out tweet you posted seems stupid when nobody likes or retweets it. Due to this fear of rejection we succumb to putting the best version of ourselves online even if this version of ourselves isn’t who we really are. Newsfeeds turn into a series of Craigslist’s ads where everyone is trying to sell themselves and avoid rejection at all costs.
In the end, the class clown becomes class president. Having limited to no experience with rejection he has a meltdown during his first week as president, when a classmate points out that he had few turn up to his party. Meanwhile, his opponent goes back to sitting alone by the same corner she’s known for years. These valuable experiences from being socially rejected don’t hold her down, but instead they inspire her to fight for every person that’s experienced rejection.
The modern quest for popularity tells us to worry more about what other people think of us than what we think of ourselves. It makes us fear and avoid rejection instead of embracing the experience that comes with it.
Stop seeking popularity, let it seek you for your individuality. Virtual hearts and thumbs-up symbols can decide your self- worth only if you allow them to. Go out there, be kind, be intelligent, be the change that you believe the world needs and let that friendly smile or thank you from a stranger be your measure of popularity. Parents, stop worrying about what will make your child popular and instead focus on the unique qualities that make them stand out. As an unpopular kid who embraced a trait that made me so different from my classmates, I look back with no regrets. It was my unpopularity that helped me start up a successful mission and for that I will forever be proud to identify with the unpopular.
Send in your stories or share your thoughts on unpopularity by commenting below or contacting me. Let’s embrace differences and unpopularity!
Originally published at www.huffingtonpost.com on February 11, 2017.